A Job for Miss Manners

By Charles Laurence, The London Telegraph – 07/04/1998 – 12:00am


U.S. computer whizkids make millions, but can’t use a knife and fork.

YOU can always tell a gentleman, my mother used to say, by the way he eats his peas. Lord help the poor man who turned over his fork to scoop them up beneath her withering gaze. In her mind, there was no doubt about it: watching the way someone ate was an infallible way of sifting the “U” from the “non-U”.

Mother would find few gentlemen, or gentlewomen for that matter, among the young millionaires of Silicon Valley, the agglomeration of Californian towns where America’s high-tech industries are concentrated. The “geeks” and “computer nerds” may have become linchpins of the global economy, thanks to their mastery of information technology, but most of them are barbarians at the table.

No one has taught them how to prise an escargot from its shell. Many have no idea how to spread a napkin, hold a wine glass or pass the salt. Some of them cannot even use a knife and fork at the same time.

Sue Fox, formerly worked at Apple computer – set herself up as an etiquette instructor. Owner of the Workshoppe, coyly named to suggest olde worlde gentility to those who know little of such things, is inundated with requests for help from such corporate giants as Apple, Microsoft and Netscape.

But for those aware of their own deficiencies, help is at hand. She hired Lyndy Janes, an Englishwoman of 44, and consultant,“American table manners are not just lax, she says; they are lamentable.”

“In restaurants in Silicon Valley, there were guys wearing Rolex watches and hand-tailored jackets who ate lettuce as if they were bunny rabbits,” she remembers. “They would pick up chicken or meat on the bone, and rip it apart with their hands – like cavemen.” So Janes has made it her mission to change them.

The faults of many of their employees are glaring to a British eye. “You must never, absolutely never, ever, lick your knife,” Janes commands, as she fixes her latest clients with her most severe expression.

The members of The Workshoppe’s dining etiquette class have paid $150 a head, meal included, to meet at a restaurant called Zibibbo in Palo Alto, the town at the head of Silicon Valley that is home to Stanford University. Palo Alto is the type of place where brainpower is instantly rewarded with vast fortunes, where professors in Gap khakis cruise Main Street in BMW roadsters – and the Hispanic serving class lives beyond the highway.

The class was told that they must leave their mobile telephones in the cloakroom – the only socially acceptable call to make from a dining table is to a babysitter, and then only in an emergency – and that they must keep their elbows off the table. She has explained that while white wine goes into this glass, the red wine goes into that larger goblet.

Twelve puzzled faces peer back at her.

Zibibbo presents challenges to the etiquette tutor: there is just one glass per person, the same forks are used for the clams and the roast pork, and the salad plonked down in the middle of the table without serving implements is for everyone to share.

Denise, dressed in spangled denim, raises her hand like a schoolgirl and asks how she should be holding her knife and fork. Americans – even domesticated Americans – generally eat by first cutting their food into
bite-sized pieces, and then laying down their knives to scoop up the food with the fork alone.

Frowning with concentration, Denise slices a piece of meat the way Janes tells her to – fork held downwards in the left hand, knife in the right, forefingers extended to press on the “flats” of the eating irons – and smiles
triumphantly when she gets it right. The table manners of Janes’s class, like those of many young Americans, might be questionable, but every one of them is unfailingly polite.

Richard, Denise’s boyfriend, an engineering manager for a software firm, is about to set off on a business trip to India and Edinburgh. It is the British stop he fears. His sober $1,000 suit would pass muster at the best of tables, but he has heard that there are countries where it is considered poor form to pick up a T-bone with the fingers to finish it off.

“It is time to better myself,” he says. “I was not raised in a formal environment. But if you do the wrong thing in the wrong company, it could cost you a business deal, hurt your career.”

Janes says the heart of the problem is that most Americans have indeed been “raised” just like Richard. Instead of being schooled in table manners and the rituals of courtesy, they are left in front of the television with pizza in their hands. Coming from England, I immediately noticed the lack of manners here,” she says. It is not just a “snob thing”: it’s a matter of self-confidence, too, she claims.

“What is the point of looking wonderful, but then hunching over the table and shovelling food into your face? It must have been like this in the Gold Rush days: people made sudden fortunes then, too, and it took time to polish their social skills.”

Most of the whizkids, including their patron saint Bill Gates – the world’s richest man – went straight from pizza in front of the telly to burgers and shakes in front of their computers. Until recently, they were proud of what my fellow diners call their “downhome nerdiness”. Netscape, a software corporation worth billions, even named its internal departments after fast-food franchises: Burger Kings, Crispy-Creme Do’Nuts and so on.

The growing demand for a little finesse must reflect the maturing of the industry. Demand for Workshoppe’s services has now reached such a level Fox is producing a series of videos and a book, “Etiquette For Dummies” and she’s busily planning to set up franchises across the country. At this pace, Middle America may yet be meeting the Home Counties over dinner without a fumbled fork or embarrassed glance.

But any trace of Jane’s British smugness I might feel is suddenly wiped away as she points at my soup, “always push the spoon away from you, she tells me; then there is less chance of accidentally slopping the liquid into your lap, or worse, into your neighbour’s.

Later, I practice placing my knife and fork gracefully in the “resting” position on the plate. Daily Telegraph readers will know that this is in the “row-boat” position, as if the utensils are oars. I reach for my wine glass, and a sleeve clumsily brushes the fork, which makes an embarrassing clatter.

Janes gives me a cool, “you should know better” stare. If I had placed the fork with the correct side down, she points out, that would not have happened. And what is more, she adds briskly, pointing to the knife, the blade should always be placed with the cutting edge facing inwards. Mine is flagrantly facing the wrong way.

I blush. Now that is something I really must remember next time I find myself lunching with Mother…

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